WINTER PARK — That staple of the southern highway, the country gas station next to the roadside diner, would definitely become a regular part of my weekends and vacation time if they were all as entertaining as the ones in Pump Boys and Dinettes, the Off-Broadway hit now enjoying a toe-tapping, foot-stomping, yee-hawing revival at the Winter Park Playhouse, where it opened on Friday.
While this one matches the Playhouse’s penchant for shows with an upbeat sense of humor (check), rollicking songs (check), and a cast that experts blends humor and some sizzling vocals (check), Pump Boys caught me by surprise. In significant ways, this one is a different breed indeed from other recent Playhouse shows.
The musical, which premiered Off Broadway at the Colonnade Theatre in New York City in 1981, was a perennial favorite of audiences in the Big Apples — so much so that it quickly made the jump to Broadway and became a 1982 Tony Award winner.
There isn’t much plot to it; consider the show a slice of life glimpse into the gas station and auto repair shop where our Pump Boys sell high octane fuel on Highway 57. Right next door, the Cupp sisters run the Double Cupp diner. No customers ever walk into either one, but that’s not important, since there are some fun moments when our waitresses interact with the audience.
The Winter Park Playhouse production benefits enormously from the delightful comedic timing of Heather Alexander and Rebecca Jo Lightfoot as Prudie and Rhetta Cupp, sisters who take pride in their homemade pies, and commitment to fast and friendly service, and they keep an occasional eye on the Pump Boys next door. Their vocals and dance moves are never less than astonishing.
What really surprised me about this production, though, is the way that the theater company’s familiar live band members are back on stage as musicians — but also, quite impressively, as actors as well. If you’ve been attending Winter Park Playhouse productions for a while, you know the familiar presence on their musical director Christopher Leavy on piano and Ned Wilkinson on a multitude of instruments. What you may not have known is how funny they are playing awe-shucks good old boys, or how well they can belt out a rip-roaring country song in a manner that would make the Grand Ole Opry blush. You start thinking, where have these talented actors been all my life?
They’re joined by Ken Tibeau, a professional musician who likewise provides the audience with a finely comedic good old boy, and Nick Rosaci in a mostly silent role, who nevertheless has some humorous expressions to share and sure can play the bass exceptionally well.
The show is also unique because the song list — some real catchy ditties such as “Catfish,” “Mona” and the side-splitting “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” — makes you wish more stage musicals focused on country and western tunes. Calling this one lively is an understatement.
Expertly directed and choreographed by the Playhouse’s Artistic Director Roy Alan, this show is a lot like fine country music itself: totally unpretentious fun. The terrific set design featuring both the diner and the gas station helps quite a bit, too. Check out the funny nostalgic signs on the wall.
The show runs now through June 12, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., along with Thursday, Friday and Saturday matinee performances at 2 p.m. There are also some select Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Ticket prices are $46 for evening shows, $43 for seniors during evening performances, $39 matinees, and $20 for students and theatrical industry professionals. Group discount rates for 10 people or more are available. Student rush “$10@10” offers $10 tickets (for students 25 years and younger) 10 minutes prior to a performance when seats are available.
To buy tickets, call the box office at 407-645-0145 or visit online at www.winterparkplayhouse.org
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.